Sean Noonan: Sean Noonan Brewed By Noon: Stories To Tell

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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Sean Noonan Brewed By Noon
Stories To Tell

The electric guitar has now been around in jazz for more years than it wasn't, but it still sometimes sounds like the organism might reject the graft. This has nothing to do with a shortage of great jazz players: for pure supple beauty one need go no further than Oscar Moore's solo, at once crystalline and labyrinthine, on the Nat King Cole Trio's 1944 recording of "Body And Soul.

But what Moore didn't address, and what has since been the source of some of the most glorious experiments and ignominious failures with the electric guitar, is how to incorporate the many timbral possibilities of the instrument, from steely precision to crackling distortion. You can begin to hear a little of this in Johnny Smith's 1952 rendition of "Moonlight In Vermont —record of the year, according to Down Beat, and featuring Stan Getz as a sideman, but who remembers it today?

It's a problem which also concerns the fusion of musical styles, and it's interesting that the two finest examples of jazz electric guitar (broadly defined) that I've heard in the past year combine rock and roll with African guitar: Extra Golden's one-off Ok-Oyot System (Thrill Jockey, 2006), and now this album by percussionist Sean Noonan's Brewed By Noon troupe.

Such a mixture is a promising recipe, mixing the hard-edged, blocky vocabulary of rock and roll with the sinuous, feline, pullulating lines of its African cousins—in the guise of Congolese rumba (as on Ok-oyot System, which featured Kenyan benga guitarist Otieno Jagwasi), or the West African forms favored by Noonan and company. The still indispensable African Music: The Pop Music Of A Continent, by Chris May and Chris Stapleton (Dutton Obelisk, 1990) reminds us that African rock is multifaceted and complex, but also that it is fundamentally guitar music. The combination is one of ying and yang, masculine and feminine, head and heart—and when it sounds right, as it does on these records, it has the ring of primordial inevitability and not of dilettantish cross-cultural collage.

Rock and African music have a rhythmic reference point in common, exploited on both of these records: the chatty, trance-inducing, minimalist harmonic patterns woven by, say, Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew in early-1980s King Crimson, which sounds so very like the interlinked and overlapping meters of West African drumming. (You can also hear this mesmerizing sound, with no guitars, on last year's Stoa, on ECM, by Nik Bärtsch's Ronin.)

Stories To Tell, at its best, has that fertile combination of the grandiose gesture (for example, fuzz-tone power chords) alongside the delicate accent. Furthermore, it's the centrality of the guitar-based fusion that lends the record its coherence. There are three guitarists here, though it is heavy-hitter Marc Ribot whose solo voice is most prominent, and protean, sounding like a frenzied Carlos Santana in full flight one moment, pensive the next.

The musical fusion—or "brewing, to use the leader's preferred metaphor—owes a great deal to the percussion ensemble as well. This is a drummer's record, after all.

There are other forms of fusion going on here: linguistic, as when Susan McKeown and Abdoulaye Diabaté trade verses in Gaelic and Bambara on "Noonbrews, or when Diabaté and bassist Thierno Camara switch between the lingua francas of Mali and Senegal on the fine "Urban Mbalax. Mat Maneri's atmospheric viola, beautifully featured on the closing "Dr. Sleepytime, contributes to the Celtic tinge that Noonan, a self-described "Irish griot, seeks to produce.

"Scabies may be the record's masterpiece, though there is nary an explicit nod to Africa. It's noisy, but as was the case of the great 1980s quartet Last Exit (whose gloriously loud jazz the track resembles), you can really tell the musicians are listening to each other. As indeed they seem to be doing throughout.

Tracks: Massana Cissé Esspi; Noonbrews; Connection; Urban Mbalax; No Strings Attached; NY; Pineapple; Scabies; Dr. Sleepytime.

Personnel: Sean Noonan: electro-acoustic drum set; Marc Ribot, Aram Bajakian, Jon Madof: electric guitars; Mat Maneri: viola; Thierno Camara: electric bass, vocals, percussion; Abdoulaye Diabaté, Susan McKeown, Dawn Padmore: vocals; Jim Pugliese, Thiokho Diagne: percussion.

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